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Andrea Hunter Halgrimson, Published July 10 2011

Halgrimson: Book explores Swedish-American culture

The writings of Swedish artist Birger Sandzén are the subject of a book, “Birger Sandzén on Art, Music and Transcendence,” written by James M. Kaplan and published by the Nordic Studies Press.

The book is a gathering of Kaplan’s previously published articles about Sandzén’s writings and art, plus new material from the artist’s literary works. Kaplan discusses Sandzén’s writing as literature and interprets his artwork. It is a fascinating study not only of the art and times in which Sandzén lived and wrote, but of the Swedish-American culture.

Sandzén was born in Blidsberg, Sweden, in 1871. When he was 23, he read a book by the founder of Bethany College at Lindsborg, Kan., and he joined the faculty of the college intending to stay just a few years. He taught French, Swedish, German and Spanish and assisted in the art and music departments.

In spite of a demanding teaching schedule, Sandzén stayed on at Bethany College for the remainder of his life, building a house and studio across from the campus. He died there in 1954, at the age of 83.

Over the years, Sandzén also served as a visiting art instructor at schools in Colorado Springs, Colo.; Denver; Stephens College in Columbia, Mo.; the Kansas City Art Institute; Utah State University in Logan; and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

During his years at Bethany College, Sandzén made three trips to Europe and two to Mexico, all of which he wrote about.

In 1905, needing money for a planned year’s sabbatical in Europe, he contracted with four Swedish-American newspapers to provide them with travel letters. Excerpts from many of these letters are present in Kaplan’s book.

Also at that time, an anthology of Sandzén’s previously written works and reproductions of a number of his artworks, was published by the Augustans Book Concern of the Augustana Lutheran Synod. It was called, “With Paintbrush and Pen.” Some of the texts and art from this publication are also included in Kaplan’s book.

“When Birger Sandzén discovered the landscape in the American West, he must have found happiness,” Kaplan said. “There he saw just the palette of colors that he had been looking for and an intense light that made his paintings into powerful experiences of color.”

Kaplan’s dialog on the significance of trees in Sandzén’s art is revealing of the artist’s deep feelings for nature.

Kaplan was raised in Worcester, Mass. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1975, he came to Minnesota State University Moorhead to teach French and later Swedish and did so until his retirement. During that time, he founded the Swedish Cultural Heritage Society of the Red River Valley.

An exhibit of Sandzén’s breathtaking woodcuts and etchings from Kaplan’s collection is showing at the Spirit Room, 111 Broadway, Fargo, from 1 to 5 p.m. daily.

The show will be up until July 31, and it is well worth a visit.

Sources: James Kaplan, www.Sandzen.org/Sandzen.htm


Readers can contact Forum columnist Andrea Hunter Halgrimson at ahalgrimson@forumcomm.com